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More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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Embrace doubt, reject certitude, and move past moral smugness

Noah Millman has a post up at The American Conservative, What Has Christianity To Do With Human Rights? He is responding to a conversation at the heart of which is Ross Douthat, who is making singular claims for the grounding of the presuppositions which Western liberals hold dear in Christian theology. I pretty much agree with Noah on the major salient points. As someone who is not a religious believer, and have never been a religious believer, one issue that I have whenever I’ve had to engage with religious believers is that there are a particular set of arguments where the believers have a very difficult time stepping out of the circularity of their own position. But similarly, as a non-liberal I have had a difficult time trying to get liberals to acknowledge that the stance that “certain things are obvious and self-evident in their truth to all progressive people” is a strongly historically contingent statement as well.

As an empirical matter I think Ross, and Christians more generally, over-read the causal role of their faith in Western history. Though the Christian religion certainly effected some change, it is important to note that its emergence and rise to prominence was coincident with a whole host of other changes in the world of antiquity. And more importantly, Christianity itself has turned out to be incredibly adept as justifying nearly every political and social perspective under heaven. The metaphystical coherency of Christianity, or any other “system of thought,” founders on the reality that human action is fundamentally disjointed, incoherent, and a slap-dash constellation of innate reflexes and historically contingent norms.

The idea that human beings, animals just risen to sentience, can hold in their minds’ eye a ethical and political system of coherency to rival anything like mathematics is a childish conceit, best set aside in serious conversation. And yet the conceit will persist and rear its head in all discussion, because it is a natural outgrowth of the false perception that we are dominated by our reason and not our passions.

Recently I watched this Christian duet’s paean’s ode to Rick Santorum and was struck by the references to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am aware that Christian conservatives have a “Constitutionalist” focus, and often suggest that the Founding Fathers were “Bible believing Christians.” In regards to the latter the historical record speaks rather easily on this issue because many of the founders were men of letters, and have left their opinions. Aside from a few exceptions such as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen most would have accepted the appellation Christian, but then again most Mormons also assert that they are Christians. Unitarian Christians such as John Adams explicitly rejected Trinitarian Christianity.

In other words, by and large a substantial proportion were heretics from a modern conservative Christian perspective. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson exhibited skepticism of revealed religion more generally over most of his adult life; even producing a bowdlerized Bible. Again, as noted above aside from Paine and Allen most of the founding generation of American statesmen would not be confused with militant secularists. Their cultural presuppositions and contexts were radically different. But they were a generation which matured during an era where educated elites tended to view belief in institutional supernatural religion with more indulgence than sincere ardor.

But it is issue of cultural presuppositions that I want to get back to, as this is actually the largest rupture with the conservative Christian patriotic paradigm which strikes me. The American republic organized as a federal entity was a radical break with thousands of years of human history, explicitly separating the sacral and the profane. The radicalism of the American republic existed int the political dimension, certainly. Many thinkers were skeptical that republican forms of governance scaled upward in size. The failure of ancient Rome being the classical example known to all educated men of the era. But another issue from a mainstream perspective was the tearing away of the divine sanction which a political order must receive. The decoupling of faith and state was a great innovation (only a few American states had done so at the time!). We know now that the rise of the state and civilized political order was accompanied by the liberal mixing of religion and politics. Many of the early states which were vehicles for antique civilizations were famously more religious than political in character. But the American republic took the process of secularization farther than had been conceivable. I can grant the proposition that even the Deist founders might be curious and confused as to the details and passions of church-state separation policy in today’s America. But I do not think that that negates the radicalism of their secularism in their age.

All this goes to show that modern political movements draw inspiration from the past, but they refashion the past to suite current propositions. I have had friends of Left-liberal persuasion who have suggested that the founders were pioneers in multiculturalism! Again, I doubt that the founders would even recognize terms of the debate. As a factual matter both the Right and the Left draft the past to suit present ends. This is not wholly without merit or utility. We see the past darkly, collectively and personally. So long as we can separate the past as a positive and empirical matter, and a romantic, almost mytho-poetic one, cold truth and nurturing falsity can coexist usefully. For much of the population the lived reality is that positive matters of truth are of little concern. They are consumers of fiction and the novel, not connoisseurs of monographs. The key is to keep a balance between the reality that was, and the myths we cherish going forward.



Dhimmitude and demise done well

Sometimes readers will ask about a good book on the history of religion, and I’m pretty hard-pressed to recommend something without qualification, caveat, or caution. But I can recommend The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died without any riders. I have a long review up at Discover blogs outlining why. In my review I forgot to mention that you can read the first few chapters on HarperCollins’ website.

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A reader recently asked me about a history of Islam which did not exhibit the strong biases evident in Karen Armstrong’s body of work. I don’t know what to recommend really because I don’t read too many popular works of Islamic history with a broad sweep, almost all of them are too weighted down with extraneous ideological garbage (mind you, I am able to filter it out pretty easily, but in many of these books the garbage is too much to dig through). But, I would recommend all readers to Philip Jenkins’ histories of Christianity. I have just finished The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, and can recommend it. Jenkins is an Episcopalian, and generally seems to have sympathy with religious traditionalists, though not necessarily of the fundamentalist stripe. I don’t agree with him on everything, but his biases and theoretical agendas weigh relatively lightly and transparently through his narratives. Additionally, it is obvious that Jenkins’ has particular sympathy with Christians and Christianity, though he does a good job of evaluating the scholarship without letting his own sentiments cloud his assessments too much. I know some readers may be attracted to Rodney Starks’ most recent polemics, such as God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, to counteract the anti-Western bias in the popular historical literature (e.g., The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain). If Philip Jenkins is Hugh Hefner, Rodney Stark is Larry Flynt. I know that a Hustler “spread” fits the bill on occasion, but in the end something a bit more tasteful and understated (and frankly, accurate) is more edifying to all.



On experts

On the Left right now they’re passing around a paper which suggests that immigration boosts median income. Since the modern American elite Left is pro-immigration they naturally take a shine to such papers, and my own impression from talking to economists is that a “pro-immigration” position is mainstream within the discipline. Fair enough. But how many liberals would accept the mainstream position on the minimum wage? Now all of a sudden I suspect you’d be hearing objections based on what the economic models leave out, how they’re oversimplified, etc.

Or, consider what happened with Ross Douthat’s column on assimilation, nativism, and anti-Catholicism. An individual who I was discussing the issue with pointed me to a historian who “debunked” Douthat’s assertion in a few sentences, stating plainly that Douthat was simply wrong. Stop!!! If a historian gives you a straight, black & white answer, without nuance, he’s telling you what you want to hear! Or, he’s telling you what he believes for normative, not positivist, reasons.

Ross Douthat’s new column, Islam in Two Americas is getting a lot of play. Douthat has to constrain his prose to make it suitable for a print column…I can almost see the excisions of nuance and subtly necessitated by the word length cap. Consider what Douthat says about Mormons and Roman Catholics:

…The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy….


Over at Crunchy Con Rod Dreher points me to a new book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, which, in Dreher’s words “attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters.” If you open the Bible and read it front to back, there is much to defend, or as academics would say, “contextualize.”

As a young unbeliever with some fluency in the basic texts of the Christian religion I would occasionally point to the “politically incorrect” aspects of scripture, or commentaries by the Church Fathers, in arguments with my devout friends. The main issue which prompted me was the contention by my righteous interlocutors that their religious tradition espoused timeless values, that they had access to Truth untouched by historical contingencies. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Liberals are wont to point out the selective reading of scripture by cultural “conservatives.” The sections devoted to homosexuality have great relevance today, but those speaking to the sin of divorce are less emphasized in a society where many “Bible believing Christians” engage in serial monogamy.

Attempts by Christians to genuinely “roll back the clock” in a more credibly consistent manner have met with little success. Doug Wilson, a Reformed theologian and pastor prominent in right-wing Calvinist circles, attempted to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. Wilson’s argument is logically consistent. Christianity Today noted:


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Christopher Beckwith against modernism

A few months ago I reviewed Empire’s of the Silk. I focused on the historical scholarship, but Lorenzo Warby puts the spotlight on the more normatively charge jeremiad against “modernism” interlaced throughout the book.




Social cycles

An addendum to my comments on the posts on natalism. As I suggest below I think as a whole it is appropriate to model humans before 1800 as a conventional animal subject to Malthusian constraints. When a new crop (e.g., Champa rice, the potato) was introduced there would be a population increase, but that increase quickly reached a “natural” limit and growth would cease. On occasion disease (e.g., Black Death) or political disorder (e.g., the depopulation of Central Asia by the Mongol armies) would result in a population decrease. Interestingly, because of the Malthusian nature of the pre-modern world these societies in the wake of a population collapse would actually be more affluent per capita for several generations as the balance between labor and land would shift toward a surplus of the latter. It stands to reason then that I am highly skeptical of ideological pro or anti-natalist orientations within a culture. “Noble savage” populations regulated their population through birth spacing and infanticide not because they were ecologically conscious, but because their mode of production was such that the maximum number of humans supportable within their ecology was low. Large broods would be temporary as many children died of starvation.

On the other hand, I do suspect there may be elite driven cultural cycles which emerge from endogenous parameters within civilizations. I will here just refer you to Peter Turchin’s work. I do think usage of words like “vigor” may have some relevance to elite castes within pre-modern societies, though Turchin favors concepts which relate to social cohesion more precisely. But I doubt they are of particular relevance on a mass scale before the modern age. The average peasant was miserable, marginal and ignorant. The American farmer on the frontier was an exception, but that is because of the peculiar balance of the labor vs. land relationship in the New World until the “closing of the frontier.” By the time of American frontier had closed Western societies had to a great extent broken out of the Malthusian trap, so the history of the United States has never witnessed David Ricardo’s stationary state.

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